Just like humans have regular checkups with their doctor, regularly scheduled dog wellness exams with a qualified dog veterinarian are essential to maintain the overall health of canines. They are the doctors who staff animal clinics and hospitals in towns and cities across the United States and Canada. (Other veterinarians specialize in other types of animals or specific medical procedures or specialties.)
Wellness visits for humans and dogs alike center on preventive medicine, which concentrates on promoting health and well-being and preventing disease, disability, and death. During regular canine wellness exams, a veterinarian checks out a dog’s overall health with a full dog physical exam and blood screening or other procedures when needed. Canine wellness exams can catch developing health problems and help ensure an active, happy, and healthy dog year ahead.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING A CANINE WELLNESS EXAM?
Veterinarians usually perform canine wellness exams once per year—the annual check-up—on healthy adult dogs (typically ages 1 to 9, depending on the breed). During a wellness examination, a veterinarian will ask the pet owner about a dog's behavior and general dog health as well as its breathing, diet, exercise, habits, lifestyle, thirst, and what are called elimination patterns—bowel movements and urination.
The veterinarian will then perform a physical examination of the dog, checking the ears, eyes, nose, and teeth; administer necessary vaccines; take its temperature; test a fecal sample; test for heartworms and other internal parasites; weigh the dog, and feel for any abnormalities on the dog’s body—all while noting any reactions to unusually painful or sensitive areas. Veterinarians will also evaluate a dog’s cardiovascular and respiratory health as well as its mobility, and the doctor may perform such screenings as a biochemistry profile, a complete blood count, thyroid hormone testing, and urinalysis.
Based on the exam and the dog's history, the veterinarian may make recommendations for treatments dealing with dental care, joint health, nutrition, parasite control, skin and coat care, vaccinations, weight management, or other wellness issues. The veterinarian may also discuss a dog's circumstances and recommend appropriate life-stage or lifestyle changes. Veterinarians tailor canine wellness exams to specific dogs, but they generally follow guidelines created by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) as well as the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) canine life stage health checklist. Veterinarians also keep tabs on the latest protocols and advancements in veterinary medicine to help keep their patients happy and healthy.
For puppies, wellness examinations are done more frequently—as often as once per month in the dog’s first half-year. Such frequent wellness checks ensure a puppy is developing properly and allow for timely vaccines and possible deworming as well as the revelation of inherited defects or other canine health care issues. During this period, too, many young dogs are neutered or spayed to prevent later unwanted pregnancies.
Senior dogs require more frequent wellness examinations. Semiannual visits are recommended for dogs 10 years or older that appear to be in good health. Older dogs often suffer from arthritis or cataracts and are more susceptible to disease and illness in general. A veterinarian may spot subtle health changes that are not obvious to a pet’s owner. As with humans, early diagnosis of medical conditions in dogs is key to providing effective and possibly life-saving treatment. Senior wellness exams may also include abdominal, chest, or skeletal X-rays to assess internal organs and look for degenerative changes in bones or joints.
WHAT ARE COMMON CANINE HEALTH PROBLEMS?
Dogs may suffer from various maladies, some inherited or naturally occurring, and some encountered through contact with other dogs and the outside world. Still, other problems can arise from hazards in the home. Inherited conditions commonly occur in all dogs—both pure- and mixed-breed. Veterinarians look for, diagnose, and treat such hereditary and naturally-occurring dog conditions as:
- Diabetes mellitus
- Hip and elbow dysplasia
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Mast cell tumor
- Mitral valve disease
- Non-struvite bladder stones
- Patella luxation
- Retained testicles
- Umbilical hernias
Dogs and their owners usually spend a good deal of time outdoors, and dogs inevitably come in contact with other dogs. Such outdoor and social settings present more health risks for dogs, including:
- Canine distemper
- Canine influenza
- Canine parvovirus
- External parasites
- Fertilizers and pesticides
- Intestinal parasites
- Kennel cough
- Regional wildlife risks and feral animals
- Tick-borne diseases
- Toxic plants
Dogs may also face threats in the home, and owners should be vigilant about “puppy-proofing” and then “dog-proofing” the house. Many human foods and drinks pose a threat to dogs and should be kept safely stored away. These include:
- Coffee grounds
- Fatty foods
- Grapes and raisins
- Macadamia nuts
- Xylitol (an artificial sweetener)
- Yeast dough
Dogs always want to nose through the garbage, but that too should be off-limits. Aside from the mess, bacteria and molds in the garbage can cause food poisoning or other problems. All cleaning products are also prohibited, as are:
- Alkaline batteries
- Copper pennies (with zinc)
- Herbicides, insecticides, and rodenticides
- Indoor plants
- Liquid potpourri
- Paints and solvents
- Soaps and sundries
- Tobacco products
This may seem like quite a laundry list of dangers, but owners can use their common sense and experience—things dogs generally need help with—to keep their pets safe.
CANINE BEHAVIOR AND MENTAL HEALTH
A key factor of canine wellness is a dog’s behavior, which can have a large impact on a pet’s mental health and quality of life. A well-behaved dog is often a happy dog, which makes for a happy owner as well. Poor animal behavior can cause emotional distress for both dog and owner, and it can sometimes lead to conflict or mental health issues for the pet. A veterinarian can help an owner who is having trouble training a dog, and even diagnose and offer solutions to the causes of undesirable pet behavior. Common behavioral issues include:
- Fear of strangers
- Noise, separation, or social anxiety
- Storm phobias
- Walking on a leash
A dog’s happiness can also be affected by such life changes as a birth or death—animal or human—in the family or moving to a new home. Illness or physical pain can affect a dog’s mental health, as can abuse, bodily disorders, degenerative issues, or confinement and kenneling. Dogs may suffer from anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and unhappy dogs can appear listless and refuse to eat or exercise. They may hide or tremble or suffer from diarrhea or vomiting. Depression and stress can also cause skin problems or even shorten a dog’s lifespan.
To help a dog with mental health issues, a veterinarian may recommend exercise and mental stimulation, extra attention and gentle contact, massage, natural or prescribed medicines, or simply letting a dog be a dog and indulge more in the things it enjoys—playing, running, or perhaps sacrificing a pair of the owner’s favorite slippers to a dog’s chewing inclinations.
BECOMING A VETERINARIAN
If you are interested in becoming a veterinarian and caring for dogs, you must attend a veterinary program accredited by the AVMA—such as Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine (RUSVM) DVM program*. RUSVM runs an accelerated Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program of 3.25 years, but most veterinary schools are four years. During school, you should steer toward companion and small animal medicine—the general field that covers dogs and cats as well as other pets.
After earning a DVM degree, the graduate must gain licensure by passing the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination® (NAVLE). To begin practicing veterinary medicine, licensed DVMs must meet their individual state’s requirements regarding competence and conduct. Veterinarians may be certified by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners and by the board of their eventual specialty, and they may apply for membership in the AVMA or other professional societies.
The Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine provides an accelerated, broad-based curriculum that integrates unique research opportunities, classroom study, and hands-on clinical training. Take the next step on your path to becoming a companion and small animal veterinarian: apply for admission to RUSVM.
*Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine confers a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree, which is accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education (AVMA COE), 1931 N. Meacham Road, Suite 100, Schaumburg, IL 60173, Tel: 800.248.2862. For more information please visit: https://www.avma.org/education/accreditation-veterinary-colleges.
The AVMA COE uses defined standards to evaluate veterinary medical education programs, including facilities, clinical resources, curriculum, faculty, student outcomes and research programs. The standards are interpreted and applied by the AVMA COE-accredited veterinary medical education programs in relation to its mission.